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Coit-Essay 


Nadine Gordimer 


Nadine Gordimer 

Once upon a Time 

Someone has written to ask me to contribute to an anthology of stories for children. I 
reply that I don't write children's stories; and he writes back that at a recent congress/book 
fair/seminar a certain novelist said every writer ought to write at least one story for 
children. I think of sending a postcard saying I don't accept that I "ought" to write anything. 

And then last night I woke up — or rather was awakened without knowing what had 
roused me. 

A voice in the echo-chamber of the subconscious? 

A sound. 

A creaking of the kind made by the weight carried by one foot after another along a 
wooden floor. I listened. I felt the apertures of my ears distend with concentration. Again: 
the creaking. I was waiting for it; waiting to hear if it indicated that feet were moving from 
room to room, coming up the passage — to my door. I have no burglar bars, no gun under the 
pillow, but I have the same fears as people who do take thse precautions, and my 
windowpanes are thin as rime, could shatter like a wineglass. A woman was murdered (how 
do they put it) in broad daylight in a house two blocks away, last year, and the fierce dogs 
who guarded an old widower and his collection of antique clocks were strangled before he 
was knifed by a casual laborer he had dismissed without pay. 

I was staring at the door, making it out in my mind rather than seeing it, in the dark. I lay quite 
still — a victim already — the arrhythmia of my heart was fleeing, knocking this way and that 
against its body-cage. How finely tuned the senses are, just out of rest, sleep! I could never listen 
intently as that in the distractions of the day, I was reading every faintest sound, identifying and 
classifying its possible threat. 

But I learned that I was to be neither threatened nor spared. There was no human weight 
pressing on the boards, the creaking was a buckling, an epicenter of stress. I was in it. The house 
that surrounds me while I sleep is built on undermined ground; far beneath my bed, the floor, the 
house's foundations, the stopes and passages of gold mines have hollowed the rock, and when some 
face trembles, detaches and falls, three thousand feet below, the whole house shifts slightly, 
bringing uneasy strain to the balance and counterbalance of brick, cement, wood and glass that hold it 
as a structure around me. The misbeats of my heart tailed off like the last muffled flourishes on one 
of the wooden xylophones made by the Chopi and T songa 1 migrant miners who might have been 
down there, under me in the earth at that moment. The stope where the fall was could have been 
disused, dripping water from its ruptured veins; or men might now be interred there in the most 
profound of tombs. 

I couldn't find a position in which my mind would let go of my body — release me to sleep 
again. So I began to tell myself a story, a bedtime story. 

In a house, in a suburb, in a city, there were a man and his wife who loved each other very much 
and were living happily ever after. They had a little boy, and they loved him very much. They had 
a cat and a dog that the little boy loved very much. They had a car and a caravan trailer for 
holidays, and a swimming-pool which was fenced so that the little boy and his playmates would 
not fall in and drown. They had a housemaid who was absolutely trustworthy and an itinerant 
gardener who was highly recommended by the neighbors. For when they began to live happily ever 
after they were warned, by that wise old witch, the husband's mother, not to take on anyone off the 
street. They were inscribed in a medical benefit society, their pet dog was licensed, they were 
insured against fire, flood damage and theft, and subscribed to the local Neighborhood Watch, 
which supplied them with a plaque for their gates lettered Y OU HAVE BEEN WARNED 
over the silhouette of a would-be intruder. He was masked; it could not be said if he was 
black or white, and therefore proved the property owner was no racist. 

It was not possible to insure the house, the swimming pool or the car against riot 
damage. There were riots, but these were outside the city, where people of another color 
were quartered. These people were not allowed into the suburb except as reliable 


1 Chopi and T songa: two peoples from M ozambique, northeast of South Africa 


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housemaids and gardeners, so there was nothing to fear, the husband told the wife. Y et she 
was afraid that some day such people might come up the street and tear off the plaque 
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED and open the gates and stream in... Nonsense, my dear, 
said the husband, there are police and soldiers and tear-gas and guns to keep them away. 
But to please her — for he loved her very much and buses were being burned, cars stoned, 
and schoolchildren shot by the police in those quarto's out of sight and hearing of the 
suburb — he had electronically controlled gates fitted. Anyone who pulled off the sign 
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED and tried to open the gates would have to announce his 
intentions by pressing a button and speaking into a receiver relayed to the house. The little 
boy was fascinated by the device and used it as a walkie-talkie in cops and robbers play 
with his small friends. 

The riots were suppressed, but there were many burglaries in the suburb and somebody's 
trusted housemaid was tied up and shut in a cupboard by thieves while she was in charge of 
her employers' house. The trusted housemaid of the man and wife and little boy was so upset 
by this misfortune befalling a friend left, as she herself often was, with responsibility for the 
possessions of the man and his wife and the little boy that she implored her employers to 
have burglar bars attached to the doors and windows of the house, and an alarm system 
installed. The wife said, She is right, let us take heed of her advice. So from every window 
and door in the house where they were living happily ever after they now saw the trees 
and sky through bars, and when the little boy's pet cat tried to climb in by the fanlight to 
keep him company in his little bed at night, as it customarily had done, it set off the alarm 
keening through the house. 

The alarm was often answered — it seemed — by other burglar alarms, in other houses, 
that had been triggered by pet cats or nibbling mice. The alarms called to one another 
across the gardens in shrills and bleats and wails that everyone soon became accustomed to, 
so that the din roused the inhabitants of the suburb no more than the croak of frogs and 
musical grating of cicadas' legs. Under cover of the electronic harpies' discourse intruders sawed 
the iron bars and broke into homes, taking away hi-fi equipment, television sets, cassette players, 
cameras and radios, jewelry and clothing, and sometimes were hungry enough to devour everything 
in the refrigerator or paused audaciously to drink the whiskey in the cabinets or patio bars. 
Insurance companies paid no compensation for single malt 2 , a loss made keener by the property 
owner's knowledge that the thieves wouldn't even have been able to appreciate what it was they 
were drinking. 

Then the time came when many of the people who were not trusted housemaids and gardeners 
hung about the suburb because they were unemployed. Some importuned for a job: weeding or 
painting a roof; anything, baas 3 , madam. But the man and his wife remembered the warning about 
taking on anyone off the street. Some drank liquor and fouled the street with discarded bottles. 
Some begged, waiting for the man or his wife to drive the car out of the electronically operated 
gates. They sat about with their feet in the gutters, under the jacaranda trees that made a green 
tunnel of the street — for it was a beautiful suburb, spoilt only by their presence — and sometimes 
they fell asleep lying right before the gates in the midday sun. The w ife could never see anyone go 
hungry. She sent the trusted housemaid out with bread and tea, but the trusted housemaid said these 
were loafers and tsotsis 4 , who would come and tie her and shut her in a cupboard. The husband said, 
She's right. Take heed of her advice. Y ou only encourage them with your bread and tea. They are 
looking for their chance ... And he brought the little boy's tricycle from the garden into the house 
every night, because if the house was surely secure, once locked and with the alarm set, someone 
might still be able to climb over the wall or the electronically closed gates into the garden. 

You are right, said the wife, then the wall should be higher. And the wise old witch, the 
husband's mother, paid for the extra bricks as her Christmas present to her son and his wife — the 
little boy got a Space Man outfit and a book of fairy tales. 

But every week there were more reports of intrusion: in broad daylight and the dead of night, 
in the early hours of the morning, and even in the lovely summer twilight — a certain family was 


2 Single malt: an expensive Scotch whiskey 

3 baas: boss 

4 tsotsis: hooligans 


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at dinner while the bedrooms were being ransacked upstairs. The man and his wife, talking of the 
latest armed robbery in the suburb, were distracted by the sight of the little boy's pet cat effortlessly 
arriving over the seven-foot wall, descending first with a rapid bracing of extended forepaws 
down on the sheer vertical surface, and then a graceful launch, landing with swishing tail 
within the property. The whitewashed wall was marked with the cat's comings and goings; and on 
the street side of the wall there were larger red-earth smudges that could have been made by the 
kind of broken running shoes, seen on the feet of unemployed loiterers, that had no innocent 
destination. 

When the man and wife and little boy took the pet dog for its walk round the neighborhood 
streets they no longer paused to admire this show of roses or that perfect lawn; these were hidden 
behind an array of different varieties of security fences, walls and devices. The man, wife, little boy 
and dog passed a remarkable choice: there was the low-cost option of pieces of broken glass 
embedded in cement along the top of walls, there were iron grilles ending in lance-points, there were 
attempts at reconciling the aesthetics of prison architecture with the Spanish Villa style (spikes 
painted pink) and with the plaster urns of neoclassical facades (twelve-inch pikes finned like 
zigzags of lightning and painted pure white). Some walls had a small board affixed, giving the 
name and telephone number of the firm responsible for the installation of the devices. While the 
little boy and the pet dog raced ahead, the husband and wife found themselves comparing the 
possible effectiveness of each style against its appearance; and after several weeks when they paused 
before this barricade or that without needing to speak, both came out with the conclusion that only 
one was worth considering. It was the ugliest but the most honest in its suggestion of the pure 
concentration-camp style, no frills, all evident efficacy. Placed the length of walls, it consisted of a 
continuous coil of stiff and shining metal serrated into jagged blades, so that there would be no way 
of climbing over it and no way through its tunnel without getting entangled in its fangs. There 
would be no way out, only a struggle getting bloodier and bloodier, a deeper and sharper hooking 
and tearing of flesh. The wife shuddered to look at it. Y ou're right, said the husband, anyone would 
think twice... And they took heed of the advice on a small board fixed to the wall: Consult 
DRAGON 'S TEETH The People For Total Security. 

Next day a gang of workmen came and stretched the razor-bladed coils all round the walls of 
the house where the husband and wife and little boy and pet dog and cat were living happily ever 
after. The sunlight flashed and slashed, off the serrations, the cornice of razor thorns encircled the 
home, shining. The husband said, Never mind. It will weather. T he wife said, Y ou're wrong. They 
guarantee it's rust-proof. And she waited until the little boy had run off to play before she said, I 
hope the cat will take heed ... The husband said, Don't worry, my dear, cats always look before 
they leap. A nd it was true that from that day on the cat slept in the little boy's bed and kept to the 
garden, never risking a try at breaching security. 

One evening, the mother read the little boy to sleep with a fairy story from the book the wise 
old witch had given him at Christmas. Next day he pretended to be the Prince who braves the 
terrible thicket of thorns to enter the palace and kiss the Sleeping Beauty back to life: he dragged 
a ladder to the wall, the shining coiled tunnel was just wide enough for his little body to creep in, 
and with the first fixing of its razor- teeth in his knees and hands and head he screamed and struggled 
deeper into its tangle. The trusted housemaid and the itinerant gardener, whose "day" it was, came 
running, the first to see and to scream with him, and the itinerant gardener tore his hands trying to 
get at the little boy. Then the man and his wife burst wildly into the garden and for some reason 
(the cat, probably) the alarm setup wailing against the screams while the bleeding mass of the little 
boy was hacked out of the security coil with saws, wire-cutters, choppers, and they carried it — the 
man, the wife, the hysterical trusted housemaid and the weeping gardener — into the house. 


once upon A time First published in 1989. Nadine Gordimer was born in 1923 in a small town near Johannesburg, South 
Africa, and graduated from the U niversity of W itwatersrand. She has taught at several A merican universities, but continues to 
reside in her native country. A prolific writer, Gordimer has published more than twenty books of fiction (novels and short 
story collections). In addition to England's prestigious Booker Prize for Fiction, she received the Nobel Prize for literature in 
1991 . 


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Nadine Gordimer 


QUESTIONS 

1. The opening section of the story is told by a writer awakened by a frightening sound in the night. What two causes for 
the sound does she consider? U Iti mately, which is the more significant cause for fear? How do these together 
create an emotional background for the "children's story" she tells? 

2. W hat sty I istic devices create the atmosphere of chi Idren's stories? H ow is this atmosphere related to the story's theme? 

3. To what extent does the story explore the motives for the behavior of the wife and husband, the husband's mother, the 
servants, and the people who surround the suburb and the house? What motives can you infer for these people? What 
ironies do they display in their actions? 

4. Can you fix the blame for the calamity that befalls the child? W hat are the possible meanings of the repeated phrase 
"YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED"? 

5. What details in the introductory section and in the children's story imply the nature of the social order in which both 
occur? 

6. Analyze the story's final paragraph in detail. How does it help to elucidate the theme? 


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